Dirty Dozen Diary: The World Football League, A Force Too Big For Landry’s Cowboys To Hide From
Though the familiar crusade begins every summer at training camp and concludes in the heart of winter at the Super Bowl, not all football seasons are created equal. For each team, there are different obstacles to confront and overcome. Some are small, some are big, and there are still others so complex as to provide an entire organization with a perpetual headache.
For the 1975 Dallas Cowboys team, just such a headache came packaged in the form of the World Football League (WFL). Try as they might, the Cowboys couldn’t hide themselves from the ripple effect which the presence of this rival league presented. And, to answer a recent question from a reader as to why I spent so much time dealing with the WFL in my book “The Dirty Dozen,” I would add that neither could I run from it.
Gary Davidson’s pet invention was real and, if for only a very brief time, a force to be reckoned with on the professional football scene in the mid-1970s. To make as profound a connection with football fans in America as possible, Davidson’s league heavily targeted the two most popular NFL teams of that time – the Miami Dolphins and the Cowboys – when trying to lure players over to their side.
And who can argue with their success? Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick, and Paul Warfield agreed to jump ship from the Dolphins camp. Craig Morton, Calvin Hill, and D.D. Lewis were the headline-worthy converts from the Cowboys who signed futures contracts in the spring of 1974 to begin playing for their respective teams at the start of the 1975 season.
These new contracts were the source of locker room contention on a 1974 Cowboys squad which also endured through a players’ strike during training camp. Hill, the Cowboys’ premier running back, was dubbed one of many “Lame Ducks” on the team. Craig Morton was deemed tradeable by the front-office, and wound up with the New York Giants at mid-season. Consequentially, Dallas endured through a very disjointed 8-6 campaign which left them on the outside of the playoffs for the first time in nine seasons.
But still the World Football League would not go away, and continued to hang over the prospects of the Cowboys’ next season. Dallas used the No. 2 overall selection obtained in the Morton trade to select Randy White. But the big hole Tom Landry had to fill was at running back, where an unproven threesome were vying to fill the All-Pro shoes of Hill. Would Robert Newhouse be the starter? Doug Dennison? Charles Young?
Or would Hill actually be back in Dallas for the 1975 season. As of April of that year, that was still a distinct possibility. But when the lords of the WFL emerged from a closed-door meeting in Philadelphia and announced that the league would in fact commence with their second season, Hill was finally off to Hawaii, his days with the Cowboys officially over.
Shortly thereafter, a judge ruled that D.D. Lewis’ contract was void, allowing the veteran linebacker to return to his normal weak-side post with the Cowboys. That one ruling by the courts, combined with the excellent training camp performances of Charlie Waters and Randy Hughes, paved the way for Cornell Green’s retirement during the preseason slate.
And in November after the WFL had mercifully folded, the Cowboys plucked Warren Capone off the Birmingham roster as a replacement for the fallen Scott Laidlaw. A regular on special teams, Capone’s transition to the NFL was a smooth one, as he played well for the Cowboys down the stretch and into the postseason.
To provide proper context to all that the 1975 Dallas Cowboys team overcame on its way to an unlikely bid in Super Bowl X, there was no discounting the role which the World Football League played. They were one of the circumstantial buzzards which plucked the Cowboys roster apart and turned the team from immortal to mundane, which preceded one of the quickest turnaround in the annals of the National Football League.
To put this second-class league in the deep, dark forgotten shadows of that season would have qualified as a disservice. To you the reader, and to all those Cowboys back then who first endured, yet learned to overcome.
Thanks for reading along.